2 Albatross touching beaks with an energy of kindness

The Gift of Making Amends in Recovery

3 questions I learned to ask before saying ‘I’m Sorry’

I went to a funeral this week and found myself reminiscing with relief. It was a walk down memory lane on a broken old road, but gratefully many of the potholes had been repaired and I’d dropped off a lot of my baggage already..

One of the beautiful processes I discovered in 12-Step programs is getting to make amends to people I had harmed in my life. And when the time came for me to do that, I discovered I had a lot to learn before I could say, I’m sorry and have those words hold water.

We’ve all hurt someone in our lifetime. It’s part of being human. So even if you haven’t needed to stare down addiction, you likely have felt your heart swell at having a bridge mended or when something’s made right again.

Forgiveness is an inside job

Out of necessity on my healing journey, I learned that keeping my side of the street clean was not only good for my relationships, it was also a requirement for me to live comfortably in my own skin. 

I like to think of that as staying current. Living free of the albatross of shame around my neck has been the key to my ongoing happiness and freedom. And it took willingness and action to feel that.

What surprised and healed my psyche more than anything was recognizing that forgiveness is a gift I must give to myself.

Making amends seems to be a tipping point for people that can shift the whole energy of recovery. Approached after working through the foundational stabilizing practices and bolstered by a support system; the good feelings just pour in. 

Surprisingly, this sense of oneness with the world and gentle self-forgiveness is not reliant upon the other person’s reaction. It is because my inner work became manifest in action and my soul felt it. 

When is it important to make amends?

There are so many types of apologies. I’m not talking about an accidental, oops, sorry! 

I’m talking about the apologies that are embarrassing. The kind of situations you’d rather pretend never happened, or rationalize them away convinced they were no big deal anyhow.

These offenses may require us to confess a lie, return something taken, or repay a bad debt.  Sometimes less tangible but no less valuable is recognizing nasty words said, cold-shoulders given, or vengeful acts that have been done. 

These are the biggies and should be handled with care and with a willingness to make reparation.

Willingness is the key. First I had to become willing in preparation for deciding if, when, and how to move forward. This willingness was like unfurling my sail to catch the wind that would carry me through the healing process.

First do no harm 

When the opportunity to repair a past hurt is possible, approaching it with generosity and humility is a tricky business. I can cause more harm if I don’t consult guidance first, inner and outer, before I make the mistake of marching up to someone and dumping on them. 

An amend means to compensate for a loss or injury, not to cause another! 

I was taught to ask myself these three questions:

  1. Could bring this situation into the light without causing harm to the receiver or any other third party?
  2. Am I free of expectations for something in return like praise or a return apology?
  3. Is it safe to approach?

If the answer was yes, then I could proceed.

Recognition is a healing force

Validating another person’s experience and being seen ourselves gives us all that much-needed human connection. 

Being brave enough to say statements like these, not groveling or in shame, but in a spirit of service to the whole filled with gentle self-forgiveness was a rite of passage for me.

  • I see what I did. 
  • I recognize it harmed you.
  • And I’m willing to reverse this damage if I can, or at least acknowledge I do not ever intend for this to happen again.

And the unsaid is just as important as the said. When I would approach someone directly to make an amend, a rule of thumb is no justifications, explanations, or worst yet, blaming them for their part! That’s not going to heal anything.

Stepping up to the plate

One of the reasons I felt such positive nostalgia when traveling to this funeral was because the woman we were memorializing had been a recipient of an amend from me. 

The first time I tried to make this true apology was at her son’s wedding. I consulted my support network and they agreed I was to feel it out while I was there and if the time felt right, go for it. I was willing, but it felt selfish. She was the mother of the groom for goodness sake. So it got benched.

Then the next opportunity at another family event, when she wasn’t in such a primary role, it became possible. I said a prayer and stepped up. It was mortifying and healing all at the same time! Our bridge was mended and cleared of debris because humility brought us together.

After that, there was no more cringing or avoiding subjects for me. The past was transformed. 

Takeaway thoughts

  • Willingness opens the door to healing.
  • Recognition is a healing force.
  • Reparation is more important than an apology.
  • Humility, not humiliation, makes us all equal.